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For Professor Geeta Patel, Interdisciplinary Approach is Unavoidable

For University of Virginia professor Geeta Patel, an interdisciplinary approach comes naturally. Her own background bears that out: She has undergraduate degrees in theoretical chemistry and philosophy, and her doctoral work involved interdisciplinary study of an Urdu poet. As a scholar, her interests range from the fine arts to the history of pensions.

Now Patel, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures in the College of Arts & Sciences, is embarking on range of projects, including a prestigious fellowship in South Asia, work on a collaborative grant-funded project focused on trust and Muslim communities, and new U.Va. courses exploring the history of business and banking in South Asia.   

Patel was recently named a fellow of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a one-year appointment in Delhi, India that will allow her to explore a range of scholarly interests, including a project exploring the history of pensions and the East India Company.

She recently answered some questions about her projects.

Q: What’s the Center for the Study of Developing Societies fellowship?

A: It’s a fellowship that was awarded for the kind of work I do, rather than for any one specific project. It’s a completely interdisciplinary center – they’ve been doing a combination of social science, philosophy, economics and other work.

The fellowship is a year, and it starts when I arrive in Delhi. The date is not set yet, but it may begin in the fall of 2013.

Q: What are some of the things you’ll work on?

A: One of the things I’m doing is looking at the relationship between the philosophy and practice of the history of pensions in South Asia.

What’s really interesting about pensions is that they are a way to put money aside that is paid to you in the future. They are often constituted as a portion of salary or shared equity that you ask someone to give you later.

There have been a lot of different sorts of pensions in South Asia. Some have to do with land, or a kind of financial remuneration given to families by rulers for service, or compensation in the form of rights to certain types of trading. Then there’s also something that’s more like a conventional modern pension.

One of the oldest private-public pension funds is that of the East India Company, which began in the late 18th century. It was designed as a combination of South Asian practices and European practices. This is one of the things I’ll be able to research during the fellowship.

Q: What was unique about the East India Company and pensions?

A: The East India Company was a colonial institution, but it was almost a paradoxical institution in a way. It ended up, perhaps against its will, doing certain things out of benevolence that are in the same model as modern pensions.

If you think about what a pension does, it’s about more than just money. It’s also an investment in the organization that holds the pension for you, whether it’s the state, Social Security, U.Va.  or Vanguard. If you expect a pension from the state, you do not want the state to fail.

A pension is often a piece of your salary that you imagine you’re going to get in the future. As a result, there are a bunch of interesting questions about trust and promise and the idea of shared equity in your future life after retirement.

Some things I’m looking at with regard to the East India Company are: What conditions made pensions a necessary part of salary? What did it mean to have a state, India, that was run by a company? What did it mean when that company was essentially hamstrung into giving pensions? Should we then think of the East India Company as a welfare state? What does it mean to be a profit-making corporation and also believe in some notion of benevolence?

Most people who study pensions in Europe imagine that the practice began in Germany, and I’m saying something quite different. One of the things I’m doing is looking at records from Indian communities and examining the history of Indian pension-giving.

Q: You’re also involved in a project that runs through 2015, “Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue.” What is the project about and what’s your role?  

A: It’s a project that is trying to address the ways in which Muslims are targeted for discrimination. It involves several different institutions, and is organized around the question of trust.

I’ll be working with the University of East London Business School and working to rethink the question of trust through the idea of investment or capital. Trust is absolutely central to investment. It requires you to put your economic, emotional, social and political hopes in something. We’ll look at everything from financial capital to things like social and political capital.

The project will result in several initiatives: a conference featuring a variety of scholars, as well as a book. It involves the University of East London, Leeds Metropolitan, Center for the Study of Pakistan at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London, UEL Business School, the Postcolonial Research Group, New York University and the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University.

Q: What is the new course you’ll be teaching in the spring?

A: It’ll actually be two courses that are linked, but not necessarily sequential. The first begins in the spring and is a history of business and banking in South Asia.

The course is designed to accomplish several things. One of them is to get students to rethink some of the philosophical concepts around business and banking. This includes things like the promissory note, which is essentially what money is. If you look at Indian money, for example, it says on it “I promise to pay the bearer.” 

Then we’re going to look at histories of practices, which include trading networks, local merchants and banking networks, and artisanal labor. We’ll also look at religious communities and their engagement with finance and business. So we’ll study trading networks, including Roman trading, Indian Ocean trade and African trade. I’ll probably start around 2000 B.C. with the Sumerian and Mesopotamian trading system.

Q: What’s the advantage of an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship?

A: I don’t do anything that’s not interdisciplinary, because I just don’t think that way. Every subject leads to the study of other subjects.

As an example, I’m currently looking at the work of a 19th-century poet, Ghalib, whose work has some relation to the study of pensions. He was receiving a pension from the East India Company that had been given to his family, and there was a family fight over the pension. At the same time, he was writing poetry on trust. I’m actually looking at some of Ghalib’s exchanges with the East India Company to see if it had any relation to his poetry.

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